I am a language learner like you. I started learning French in school when I was 8 years old, and I studied it for 10 years. A few years ago I studied at a private language school in Paris.
As an English teacher I have spent a lot of time reading books and websites related to learning and teaching English.
I’ve heard a lot of advice in my time as a language learner and teacher. Not all of it has been good advice.
In honor of the 8th anniversary of EnglishTeacherMelanie.com, here are 8 pieces of advice that I think you should ignore, plus what I think you should do instead!
1. When you learn a new word, use it in your own sentence.
There is one problem with this: What if your sentence is wrong? What if you use the word incorrectly? How will you know?
If you keep doing something wrong over and over again, it becomes a habit. It is very difficult to change a habit.
You don’t have to guess how to use an English word in a sentence. We have collocations, patterns, fixed expressions, and sentences that tell you exactly how to use a word in a sentence.
Instead: Spend your time memorizing phrases and collocations.
Pay attention to the sentence in which you saw or heard the new word. Pay attention to the words around it. Check a dictionary for language learners to see if it is part of a collocation or idiom. Learn English in small chunks, or bite-size pieces. When you learn the words that go together, it becomes easier to know how to use a word in a sentence.
Learn more: What are collocations?
2. Memorize grammar rules.
I spent ten years trying to memorize the difference between the passé composé and the imparfait verb tenses in French. I can’t remember any of it.
When you spend time learning grammar rules, you improve your knowledge of grammar rules. You can answer questions on a test about grammar rules. Learning grammar rules does not help you improve your spoken English, however.
Instead: You know what would have helped in those 10 years of memorizing grammar rules? Memorizing actual sentences that I could use in conversation with the the passé composé and the imparfait verb tenses!
Spend your time learning collocations, phrases, and sentences that you can use in conversation.
Learn more: What is so important about grammar rules?
3. Make Mistakes! Learn from your mistakes!
In my lesson on 4 truths about learning English, I said that native speakers don’t care if you make a couple mistakes when you speak English. This is true. You should speak English without fear of making a mistake.
However, you should learn and practice with the intention of not making mistakes.
Here’s why: In English-speaking cultures, it’s rude to correct someone’s English. It’s important to understand that. Native speakers will not tell you if you’ve made a mistake. They might help you think of a word if your brain freezes and you can’t remember the right word, but they are not going to say, “That’s wrong.”
How will you know you are making a mistake if no one tells you that you are making a mistake?
English is a unique language. Even if you make several mistakes, a native speaker can still understand what you are trying to say.
If you continually make the same mistake and no one corrects it, it becomes a habit, and habits are very hard to break. If you’ve ever tried to quit smoking or to lose weight, you know how hard it is to change your habits.
You shouldn’t be embarrassed when you make a mistake. No one is perfect! Even native speakers make mistakes.
But, you should try not to make a mistake.
Learn more: 4 Truths about Learning English
4. Learning English should be fun! And easy! You can be fluent in 3 months!
Anyone who has ever studied or tried to learn a language knows this is not true. There is no magic secret that will make learning English easy, fun, and fast.
Learning to speak English well takes a lot of time, patience, and effort. And it isn’t always fun and easy. Sometimes it’s boring.
If you are learning English for a specific purpose, you can probably learn what you need to know in 3 months. However, it will take a lot longer to learn more English outside of your specific purpose.
Instead: Realize that English is a marathon, not a sprint. Stop telling yourself that you should be fluent now because you’ve been studying English for many years. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been studying. It matters what you have been studying and whether you have had a lot of practice.
Learn more: How to Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals
5. Read out loud every day.
This is similar to the bad advice in #3.
How is this going to improve your pronunciation? What if you are pronouncing a word incorrectly? How will you know? You will just become good at pronouncing a word incorrectly!
You may not be learning natural English rhythm patterns or intonation either.
Instead: Listen to a native speaker saying the words and imitate what you hear. Record yourself and compare how you sound to the native speaker.
6. Learn how to speak by speaking.
I don’t understand this advice at all. Words don’t magically come out of your mouth in the right order because you want them to.
You don’t learn how to drive a car by driving it.
Speaking = saying the right words (vocabulary) + in the right order (grammar) + with the right sounds (pronunciation)
You have to spend a lot of time reading and listening to learn English words, collocations, and sentences before you can speak English well.
Speaking is a performance skill. You need a lot of training and practice to become good at it.
Instead: Read and listen to English as much as possible.
Learn more: How to Practice Listening
7. Find a language partner!
Language partners are useless, unless your partner is a native speaker or unless you and your language partner speak the same native language.
What are you going to learn from talking to someone who is at a lower level than you?
Do you want to be good at talking to other English learners? Or do you want to be good at speaking English?
If your language partner speaks the same native language as you, he or she may be able to explain the mistakes that you are making in English.
Instead: Spend as much time as possible listening to native English speakers by watching TV shows or movies or listening to podcasts. Read as much English as possible.
8. You can become fluent by traveling to an English-speaking country.
I used to believe this, too, but I have discovered that it’s not that easy!
I have been teaching English for 10 years. In that time I have taught thousands of English learners.
I have studied French at a private language school. I have taught English at a private language school. I know many English learners who have studied at a private language schools. And I have taught a lot of English learners who are living and working in the US and Canada.
You are not going to learn English just by being in an English-speaking country. You still need to spend time actively studying and practicing the language.
Private language schools in English-speaking countries teach you how to communicate with other English learners. They don’t teach you to be fluent, and they don’t teach you how to understand native English speakers.
Instead: You can become fluent in English without ever leaving your country. It’s a lot of work, but it’s possible. You need to make English a part of your life, and create an English environment as much as possible!
Learn more: Make English a Part of Your Life